Last night I heard some rumblings on Facebook and Harry Smeltzer’s blog that the June 2012 issue of Civil War Times includes an editorial on Civil War blogging by Gary Gallagher. With my curiosity piqued and the issue not yet in stores I decided to secure a copy of the editorial from the author himself. I should point out that Gary and I lived up the street from one another in Charlottesville and had plenty of time to talk about all things Civil War. He was always very honest about his view of the blogging world, as well as my interest in the black Confederate myth, and I was always straightforward about why I thought he was wrong. Nothing that I say here would make me feel uncomfortable sharing with Gary over a beer. As for the column itself, it may ruffle a few feathers, but it is relatively harmless.
I just finished The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom by Glenn David Brasher. It’s a must read for anyone interested in military history, the process of emancipation, and especially the controversy surrounding black Confederate soldiers. In regard to this last area of interest it is just the kind of study we need. Brasher takes seriously the evidence pointing to black participation in Confederate ranks and he offers what I believe are very reasonable interpretations of how they were used and why they constituted such an important part of the Confederate war effort. It is a solid study. My hope is to write a formal review some time next week for the Atlantic, but for now let me make one quick point.
As important as this book is to the public debate surrounding BC, it is unlikely to have much impact at all. People don’t read books. If they want information they go to the Internet. It comes down to the fact that print sources play almost no role in this controversy. This is not meant as an argument against traditional monographs, but it is intended as a call for more of us to find ways to engage a much wider audience through a digital format, especially when the subject matters.
Wouldn’t it have been nice if Joy Masoff clicked on a link to a site that contained the quality of analysis and information contained in this book rather than a Sons of Confederate Veterans site that led her to claim that an entire battalion of black soldiers fought with Stonewall Jackson.
Given the frequency of posts on this site concerning the myth of the black Confederate soldier I wanted to point out the release of a new book that many of you will want to consult. I’ve been looking forward to Glenn David Brasher’s book, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, for some time and having completed two chapters I can now say it was worth the wait. Brasher provides an overview of history on the Virginia peninsula and analyzes the ways both free and enslaved blacks influenced the strategic and tactical decisions of both armies during the spring campaign of 1862. Brasher believes that the influence of African Americans on the Peninsula Campaign and its ultimate outcome is more important that Antietam in leading to leading to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
The most important important analytical point that Brasher has made thus far is that there was nothing inevitable about black loyalty to either side during this period. So much of the discussion surrounding black Confederates is about who can claim a moral victory for their respective side. It’s nice to remove this issue from our own soiled hands and place it back in a more strictly defined historical context. Many of the slaves who risked their lives by imposing themselves on Union forces at Fort Monroe and elsewhere remained uncertain as to whether their status as contraband would translate into real freedom. And while Brasher acknowledges the presence of slaves in Confederate ranks, he reminds us that even those who may have taken shots at Yankees may have done so for reasons that have little to do with loyalty to the Confederate cause and master.
Ultimately, this book is about the place of free and enslaved blacks in our understanding of a military campaign and the course of the war in 1862. What we ultimately learn is why the United States eventually recruited blacks into the army by early 1863 and why it took the Confederacy much longer.
I am pleased to announce that Myra Chandler Sampson will be speaking on Wednesday evening at 6:30pm at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in Austin, Texas. Her topic, as you can see in the museum’s advertisement, is Silas Chandler. If I am not mistaken, this will be her first public presentation. I am sure this is going to be an informative and entertaining talk and I strongly encourage those of you who live in the area to attend and support Myra. As interesting as Silas’s story is, however, I suspect that Myra will also talk about her personal journey that involves nothing less than reclaiming an important piece of family history that had been hijacked by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and spread on the Internet as an example of a false heritage.
It was an honor for me to be able to help Myra bring this story to a wider reading public. I certainly wish I could be there on Wednesday evening. Best of luck, Myra.
I am making my way through a small collection of essays in Thomas Brown’s Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). Fitz Brundage opens his essay on African American artists, who have interpreted the Civil War in recent years, with a reference to Willie Levi Casey. You can see Casey in the image to the right and while I’ve seen it on a number of websites, up until now I didn’t know anything about his background.
While Casey is dressed to commemorate those black men who “served” in Confederate ranks and “support preserving Southern history and telling it the way it is,” his connection to the war does not end with a black individual at all. Here is an excerpt from one news item that I found online:
Casey’s persona as a re-enactor is a free black cabinetmaker from eastern Tennessee, able to read and write, with a wife and a child at home. But he has a real-life link to the Confederacy as well–one he always vaguely knew about but pinned down only in recent years. Casey grew up in Cross Anchor, S.C., in the 1960s and ’70s. It was an area full of Caseys, black and white. He and his siblings knew they had a white great-grandfather, a man who had never married their American Indian/African-American great-grandmother even though they had six children together. A family photo of the couple’s son Barney Casey shows a bulky man in overalls with lank gray hair and white skin. He’s Willie Casey’s grandfather. Willie Casey was well into adulthood when he decided to research the white side of his family. In the course of his genealogical effort he came across the Civil War record of one Pvt. Martin Luther Casey, a South Carolina soldier killed in 1862. That man was the older brother of Casey’s great-grandfather. Being a collateral relative of a Civil War soldier qualified Casey for membership in the SCV.
OK, so I readily admit that I am confused. On the one hand Casey was accepted into the SCV based on his connection to the brother of his great-grandfather. The living interpretation that he adopts for reenactments and other events, however, is based on a fictional character whose connection to history is tenuous at best.
I guess what I am having trouble understanding is that in his effort to ‘tell it the way it is’ he ignores what has to be a fascinating Civil War legacy in the story of his great-grandfather and great-grandmother. Why doesn’t Casey do the necessary research to interpret the offspring of his great-grandparents? That would go much further in challenging the public to expand their understanding of slavery and race relations at a critical point in American history. I am sure the SCV would be more than happy to accommodate such a living memory of one’s Civil War ancestors.
Instead, we are presented with nothing more than the same tired commentary that reinforces outdated tropes that paint the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights.
[Image Source: The Free Lance-Star]